Between the Lines

Some of you out there think I have an EASY job.

No, don’t squirm and try to hide behind your Kindle; I see you, braunschweiger bundt cake. Fess up: you think I do nothing all day but eat gourmet chocolates and read vampire romance novels while ignoring phone calls. Well, it isn’t true. I have to spend at least fifteen minutes each day on high level policy decisions. This is exhausting work. (Sometimes I can’t eat any but the soft crème centers for half an hour afterward.)

Take, for example, the thorny matter of books which have been underlined. You may think it is a simple thing, throwing away the volumes that some sweating student has carefully marked up, sometimes using pen, pencil, and three colors of highlighter. It may seem to the uninitiated that all I need decide is whether to toss them overhand or underhand into the nearest recycling bin.

It’s true: we do try to eliminate these highly-decorated tomes. (In spite of all the people who claim there are readers out there who love to see what the previous owner thought was important. When one of these complainers actually offers to buy the underlined Burns Merry Muses, I will be more impressed.) It isn’t just that the text is now more difficult to read: the book itself feels different. To underline properly, you need to flatten the book out on a desk or on your lap. If you do that long enough and far enough, you produce a book with a sort of tired, overworked feel to it. Sometimes I need only take a book in my hand to think “underlined, I betcha.”

I picked up a book with that feel yesterday. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse had clearly been studied very deeply. But on flipping through the flattened pages, I found that the owner, as hard as they used the book, underlined exactly one paragraph in the middle of the book. And therein lies the question: do five lines with ballpoint pen scoring under them make the whole book trash? Exactly what proportion of underlining to text is necessary to make a book so unpleasant to read that it ought to be recycled?

We see dozens of books every year, especially in the Literature category, in which the previous owner has underlined heavily in the Introduction, but has left the main text unmarked. Is this a sign that the Introduction was all they needed to write the book report, or that they found the explanation more interesting than the real thing? What about all those paperbacks we see where the splash page just inside has been underlined, but nothing after the title page has been marked? (My predecessor dealt with those very easily. She’d rip that page out and hand the book back to me. I lack the ruthlessness to be a truly good manager.)

I usually give a pass to those books whose owners marked passage with faint pencil lines in the margin. Technically, you can’t call that underling. (Sidelining?) And there is a soft spot in my heart for those novels and plays and books of poetry assigned in literature classes where the student doodled rude pictures of the teacher and idealized portraits of their true love and their class year inside a starburst. A lot of this goes on the endpapers anyhow.

For a couple of years now, we have been getting the estate of a late newspaper book reviewer, who stamped his name in every book AND filled the endpapers with notes. It’s distracting, and, since he was dealing in first editions, it can wreck the price of a collectible. But he did almost no underlining: he wanted his notes right up front.

And sometimes the scribbling helps. We did have the seventeenth century book come in, with every blank endpaper and empty space on a page filled with tiny notes in a seventeenth century handwriting. The curators came and studied that one for a while, and then carried it off to some hidden fastness within the library, very excited about what had been written.

I found out only much later that the book was a famous grimoire, or book of magic spells. I’d have hung onto it a little longer, at least until I learned how to conjure up boxes of chocolates instead of having to get up and open the bonbon vault in the wall.

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